It was one of the most wonderful memories of my childhood. We were staying at the Sioux City, Iowa home where my grandpa had grown up.
My great aunt woke me up one morning, telling me to come quickly. I arrived at the pigsty next to the farmhouse just in time to marvel at the piglets being born.
I still remember my concern for the one tiny piglet that wasn’t able to nurse because the other piglets were bigger. My great aunt explained what “runt of the litter” meant. And I recall feeling sadness for the littlest one.
During the rest of the trip, I spent many hours watching the piglets and their mother –and making sure the runt got her share of milk.
So as I read Gail A. Einsnitz’ Slaughterhouse, I couldn’t help wondering where those piglets had ended up.
That was the question on my mind as I read the chapters on Sioux City’s now-closed Morrel meat-packing facility. Having my childhood memory marred with the realization of their likely fates was weirdly sickening.
When I started reading, I wasn’t feeling well. But after finishing Chapter Seven’s Morell-employee interviews, I actually threw up.
One of them captured the job’s emotional toll:
“You may look a hog in the eyes that’s walking around down in the blood pit with you and think, ‘God, that really isn’t a bad-looking animal. You may want to pet it. Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them — beat them to death with a pipe.”
But in some ways, those pigs were the lucky ones. They didn’t encounter the employee who spoke of cutting a screaming hog’s eye out, and worse:
“One time I took a knife — it’s sharp enough — and I sliced off the end of a hog’s nose, just like a piece of bologna. The hog went crazy for a few seconds. Then it just sat there looking kind of stupid.
So I took a handful of salt brine and ground it into his nose. Now that hog really went nuts, pushing its nose all over the place. I still had a bunch of salt left on my
hand — I was wearing a rubber glove — and I stuck the salt right up the hog’s ass. The poor hog didn’t know whether to shit or go blind.”
Gail heard stories like these from slaughterhouses all over the country. Pigs, cows and chickens — along with all the other animals we eat — being grossly abused. Her interviews with horse-meat factory employees made me queasy as well.
I didn’t want to read this book. I’m not sure who would want to read it. But if we can’t get past our discomfort with these realities happening in our own cities and towns, how will things ever change?
The atrocities Gail exposes have been taking place almost unchanged since Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906. We like to think of ourselves as so much more civilized than we were 100 years ago, but are we?
Now that I’m grown, do I still have the compassion to make sure that even the runt of the litter is protected?